Friday, 26 March 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Special Educational Needs
The Minister of State is welcome. I begin by mentioning the "Prime Time Investigates" programme broadcast last night which has touched many of us. I am here to speak on special needs and because of the matters I raise from AsIAm. People from that organisation spoke on the radio this morning on how disappointed they are the Department of Health has decided to take this approach. It is very hard to understand how people's personal details from their own private GPs being given to the Department of Health without the individuals' consent can have a legal footing. What is the Minister of State's view on this? It is important we as a Government take this matter seriously. The Department of Health will speak to the committee today and that is welcome. I will follow up on that.
Today I raise the topic of individual education plans. In Ireland, unlike the US and Britain, individual education plans are not on a legislative footing. They are on a statutory footing in the sense that the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 has quite detailed provisions around the need to provide individual education plans for all pupils and students with special needs. That has not been enacted. That is the problem which AsIAm has identified, as have I.
I refer to the letter from the Department to the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, dated 24 November 2020, which stated "whereas there is not currently a statutory requirement to provide individual education plans for children with special needs at present, all schools are encouraged to use education plans". Either we are using them or we are not using them. Parents tell me, and I am not hearing from the students but I am sure their voices would be just as strong, that some parents do not even know this exists. There is also a problem with getting assessments. Many schools say they get two or three days a year for assessments and the lack of assessments makes it difficult for schools to put in place individual education plans. That is not to say many are not fantastic and there are not guidelines available, but this shows the importance of legislation. That is what we are in this House to do. The Seanad in particular is supposed to value legislation and not just policy guidelines. The Department may feel it has gone in a different direction but it is still very much saying individual education plans are important.In such circumstances, it is hard to see why it would not commence all of the provisions within the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act. I simply do not understand that. The Minister of State will know that part of this would include obligations on her and the Department to follow up and ensure that funding is available. I would hate to think that is a part of the reason this legislation is not being commenced.
I would love an update as to where matters stand. I know that the Minister of State wrote in November but I would like to think that things have moved on at this stage. From 2004 to now is a long time to wait for this. We either think that students with special educational needs are important or we are just going to put them on the back-burner.
This is a Commencement matter. The Senator mentioned the RTÉ documentary but we cannot go into that today. The Minister of State is here to deal specifically with the individual education plans for students with special needs. I call on the Minister of State to reply.
I am happy to address the specific concerns raised by Senator Pauline O'Reilly about the Department of Education, in which I am a Minister of State. The Department is not aware of any instance of inappropriate sharing of information, nor does it take lightly any decision to defend cases concerning children with special educational needs and the rights of the child to an appropriate education under the Constitution. The needs of the child and a desire to act in the child's best interests are always to the fore in the making of any such decision. The Senator may know that in defence of any legal proceedings, it is appropriate for the Department to engage with relevant State bodies and the school or educational establishment in which the litigant is a pupil to understand fully and appreciate the education provision on offer. This is to ensure that any alleged deficiencies in provision can be appropriately considered and, in many cases, to look at what further supports might need to be provided. The statement that we issued to "RTÉ Investigates" outlined comprehensively the Department of Education's position on defending litigation on the sharing of data lawfully in this context. It is also noted that the matters raised in the query from RTÉ were of a general and unspecific nature and, as a result, the Department was only in a position to respond on that basis. The Department of Education, since the Senator has raised the issue, would like to reassure all parents, families and interested parties that the Department has never unlawfully collected or passed on the sensitive educational information of children involving court cases. I thank the Acting Chairperson for his indulgence in that regard.
I thank the Senator for bringing to my attention the other important issues she raised. Under the Education Act, we know that schools have a legal duty to provide an appropriate education to all students, including young people with special educational needs and, obviously, they need to plan to ensure that happens. Planning is an integral, normal part of a teacher's work and planning tools, such as the student support file, have been created as a resource to help schools provide for their students. Some parents may not be aware of the student support file and the schools should let them now about it if they are not aware of it. The Government, as the Senator knows, has invested heavily in education. In this year alone, €2 billion is dedicated to special education. We have greatly increased the number of special education teachers. There are now 16,500, an increase of 39% since 2011. The Senator might be familiar with Department circulars 0013/2017 and 0014/2017. They set out the basis for the allocation of special education teachers to schools and note the importance of educational planning in them. That is to ensure that children with the greatest levels of need receive the greatest levels of support. Those circulars are clear that educational planning is an essential element of a whole-of-school approach to meeting pupil's needs.
It is also noted that planning for the provision of additional teaching support for pupils of schools is an important part of the process and that co-ordination and planning time for this has been acknowledged in the allocation. Schools are, therefore, resourced to carry out planning and support and guidance for these schools on how best to carry out the educational planning and to prepare student support plans is also available from the National Council for Special Education service and from the National Educational Psychological Service.
I thank the Minister of State for responding on both of those issues. When talking about education, we have to be very careful that we do not make it sound like it involves doing something to somebody; it is a collaborative practice. In the responses on both issues, I really hope the Department of Education is taking into account the fact that this is not about defending ourselves but about our obligations in offering a service to society and the children in the schools. Education is a service; it is not about defence or about checking boxes. It may be that there is planning in schools for every student, because every student needs to have his or her needs met, but it is very clear that some students need more than others. Otherwise we would not have a Minister of State with responsibility for special needs. Some of the research, specifically that of Dr. Emer Ring, indicates that one of the key aspects of individualised planning is the promotion of collaborative practice with parental and pupil involvement. That is not always evident. The Minister of State's response is that the school should try to let people know but, with all due respect, that is not good enough.
I assure the Senator that, as the first dedicated Minister of State with responsibility for special education, I am doing everything I can to ensure the rights and best interests of children with special needs are at the forefront of everything we do. The unprecedented funding of €2 billion is an acknowledgement of that. My list of action priorities includes a review of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act. That review will take into account not only the reforms in recent times but also all aspects of developments regarding new allocation models and other matters.
As the Senator and I may have discussed before, the Department's policy of supporting children with special needs has changed from a diagnosis-led model to one driven by the needs of the child. My Department's advice is that the majority of schools do carry out some form of educational planning for pupils with special educational needs.